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2018-01-02 / Go Pink Boots

Arabian Nights

Jill Gleeson

 


Qatar wasn’t anything that I expected, although when I look back on it now I’m not sure what I did expect to encounter while visiting the spit of land sticking like a baby’s thumb into the bathtub-hot waters of the Persian Gulf. I knew a little of it — that though tiny, Qatar is the world’s richest nation thanks to its massive natural gas and oil reserves, and it is more moderate socially than many other Arab nations. I wouldn’t have to wear a headscarf while in Qatar, and alcohol is served in hotels there. I was flying Qatar Airways from Tanzania on the way back to Philadelphia, and I had to stop in the country anyway to change planes. Why not spend some time there?

That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous. Not only was Qatar enigmatic, it had a forbidden air — the country was currently in the midst of an economic and political blockade orchestrated by its neighbors. As an American would I be well received in Qatar? As a woman — a very modern woman — would I be safe?

The immediate answer appeared to be yes. The immigration officer who stamped my passport was smiling, gregarious and helpful, more welcoming than even the charmers I’ve always encountered upon entering Ireland. My driver was just as amicable, chatting with me as we sped toward Doha, Qatar’s capital. My first sight of it was immediately stunning, rising in the night before me like a glinting jewelry box, its modern skyscrapers lit in pinks and blues, gold and silver.

I only had two days in the city, so after a few hours’ sleep I was off, investigating Doha with my guide. We visited the Museum of Islamic Art, stuffed full of treasures, from illustrated Qur’ans a millennium old to bejeweled goblets from the Middle Ages. It was one of the most exquisite collections I’ve ever seen, but my gaze was drawn from it to the women wearing niqabs. Only their eyes were visible, the rest of their bodies shrouded stem to stern in black fabric.

I knew they must have been acclimatized to the heat, but I couldn’t imagine how they could bear the garments in the 110 degree temperatures. By late afternoon, after I’d wandered the byways of The Pearl, a massive, $15 billion artificial island housing some 45,000 people in splendor suitable for royalty, I called it quits. The air, so hot it almost hurt to breathe, had defeated me.

I spent much of the next afternoon at my hotel, the St. Regis. Like the rest of Doha it was unbelievably opulent, with a cavernous marble lobby and an Olympic-size swimming pool that shimmered in the sun. It was the largest in the city and one of the few kept cooled, to prevent it from becoming as hot as the gulf waters in which I dipped my toes. I’d hoped to chat with some Arab women poolside — I was anxious to learn a little about their lives, so different from mine — but the August weather kept other guests at bay.

It was all so foreign to any experience I’ve ever had — the extravagant, pristine spaces of Doha, the veiled women in black, the robed men in white. But I found nothing as stirring as Souq Waqif, the city’s legendary market. For hours I wandered its cobblestoned labyrinth of shops and cafes, stopping for an Arabic coffee — incredibly strong and pungent with cardamom — and quietly regarding the falconry shops, the magnificent birds sitting fierce and regal on their perches. I passed an open lot where camels stood, comical but still prized above all other animals for their resilience in Qatar’s deserts, where ancient Bedouin tribes still roam.

And then I happened upon a corral of Arabian horses, their powerful muscles moving smoothly beneath shiny coats, heads held high with what I imagined was pride. One ambled over to me, permitting me to stroke his nose, and we stood together like that until my guide called to me that the time had come to depart for the airport. I’d only scratched the surface of Qatar, but I’d learned enough to know I wanted to return — and I’d be welcomed, too, modern woman or not. •SCM

For more information about Qatar, visit visitqatar.qa


Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at gleesonreboots.com and via her column at womansday.com.

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